Stephen Shore’s current exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art is his most comprehensive survey to date, but it’s not his first major show at the New York institution. The first MoMA outing came in 1976, when the museum put on a 35-work survey of photographs Shore took between 1974 and 1976. Shore had not yet turned 30, but the show generated attention—negative attention, in fact, from critics who didn’t understand why he was so interested in color or, for that matter, what his photographs might be about. One such negative review, from the January 1977 issue of ARTnews, follows below. —Alex Greenberger
“Captioned pictures, pictured captions”
By Phil Patton
Stephen Shore’s photographs at the Museum of Modern Art raise a serious question for modern photography: what is the photographer’s contribution as compared to that of the popular artist who provides him his subject. Is it “Shore as photographer” we really like, or simply the designer of the movie marquee he photographs, the signmaker of the fruit stand, the architects and planners who allowed a huge purple glass building to be juxtaposed with a California bungalow? Of course, the photographer cannot be denied credit for finding what already exists, but that leaves him little more than an editor or collector of period camp.
I don’t know the answer, but it is clear that for all Shore’s careful choice of vantage point, the burden still shifts back onto subject matter in his pictures, as it often does not in current photography, which is growing self-conscious about its own techniques.
It might also be argued that the real subject matter of Shore’s pictures is not the small-town gas station or the stores, but the sense of the place as felt by a traveling artist. By titling his photos not with “place” and “year” as did earlier photographers, but with place, year, month and day, Shore links himself to moment and change; the movie on the marquee was there only for a week or two in 1974. Popular culture is, once again, the theme.
Shore’s use of color works more to render local effects than, as in the case of William Eggleston, to supplement the control of composition. Shore’s composition is careful and at times almost classical, almost a view-camera approach—but it also interacts with the colors in a subtle way that gives Shore’s pictures their particularly arresting texture. Like many of the younger American landscapists, it is clear that Shore began with Walker Evans, ran into Atget, and has come far on his own, but it is less clear whether he is more of an artist than he is a collector.